Prison is no abstract topic for John Edgar Wideman, who has a son serving a life sentence for murder and a brother who has been behind bars for more than 30 years.
The celebrated African-American author said he has spent his whole life trying to make sense of crime and punishment.
"I have a longtime, very personal, very intimate and very intense relationship with the question of incarceration in these good old United States," said Mr. Wideman, 72, who was raised in Homewood and now lives in New York City.
Mr. Wideman was part of Saturday's "Crime of Punishment: A Forum On Incarceration & Rehabilitation," held at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in Shadyside.
The public forum brought together a rich group of voices to reflect on the growing prison population in this country. Other panel members included William DiMascio, former executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Society; Bill Stickman, former warden of State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh; David Harris, a lawyer and professor at University of Pittsburgh School of Law; and Bill Moushey, former director of Point Park University's Pittsburgh Innocence Institute.
The event was presented by the independent news group PublicSource and organized by photographer Mark Perrott, whose collection of powerful images taken inside SCI Pittsburgh, previously known as Western Penitentiary, were compiled in his book "E Block."
"My work at Western Penitentiary and getting to know the system of incarceration led me to John and all of the five panelists who are connected to the landscape of incarceration in America," Mr. Perrott said. "This conversation about incarceration is an important one for all of us to consider. ... America incarcerates a higher percentage of its citizens than any country in the world. I say let's talk about it with these people who are in some way connected with the landscape of incarceration." There were 2.2 million adults in jail as of the end of 2013.
Mr. Wideman's son Jacob is serving a life sentence for the 1986 murder of a summer camp roommate, Eric Kane, in Arizona. Mr. Wideman's brother Robert is serving a life sentence for felony murder at SCI Pittsburgh. He was a habitual offender who ended up committing a botched robbery during which his accomplice shot a man who later died. Mr. Wideman's 1984 "Brothers and Keepers" is a memoir of his life intertwined with his brother's.
A Rhodes Scholar who now teaches at Brown University, Mr. Wideman is the award-winning author of close to 20 works of fiction and nonfiction.
His fiction is inseparable from the theme of crime and punishment. His first novel, "A Glance Away" (1967), was a meditation on a man who voluntarily went to Lexington, Ky., to be cured of a heroin addiction, and the story begins on his first day back in the real world.
"Heroin addiction is not a prison, but it is a prison," Mr. Wideman said. "It has many of the same qualities of prison. It's about reform and about rehabilitation.
"For me, prison is not simply a matter of bricks and bars and guards and particular locations. We all are in prison due to the human condition itself. When we are born we have a body. That body is a wonderful mechanism to live in, but it's also our prison.
"If you break an arm or a leg, you're in trouble. If you're born with a limp or with no sight, it's the same thing. The body is the first prison we inhabit. Part of learning and coming to terms with any life is to make the best of limitations.
"What's fascinated me is to watch my brother who has been physically incarcerated for over 30 years now but has grown in very unusual ways. He has maintained a quality of life for himself and a quality of mind that makes him an extraordinary individual compared to anybody inside or outside of prison."
Tim Grant: email@example.com or 412-263-1591.